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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Do You Fear Success?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 23rd 2010

Do You Fear Success?Masochistic or Self Defeating Personality Disorder

The New York Times for Tuesday, March 23 published an article written by psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman, MD, titled, "Sabotaging Success, but to What End?" The article can be found in the Science Section of the newspaper for that day.

Dr. Friedman points out that, while terrible things do happen to people, when there is a repeated pattern of terrible things, there is more than chance or accident at work. Rather, there are people who repeatedly bring about their own defeat. At one time this was referred to as the "masochistic character."

Unfortunately, concepts and diagnoses such as, masochistic character or self defeating personality disorder, were eliminated from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Part IV. The reasons for this omission had more to do with politics and social pressures than any sound psychiatric and scientific thinking. Yet, over and again, I have seen and worked with this type of personality disordered individual in my private practice. I like to refer to this pattern of self defeat as, "rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory."

Hypothetical Case Studies

The following two vignettes are fiction but provide a clear example of this type of self defeating pattern of behavior. If you see yourself in these descriptions please know that its completely coincidental. Remember, these fictional vignettes represent the types of self destruction that many of us visit upon ourselves.

1. A man is a successful musician. However, he is having conflicts with his manager. However, he is aware that his career is taking off and that he is doing well and promises to do even better. Therefore, he does not want to confront his manager.

While he is on the Internet one day, he decides to compose an E. Mail letter to his manager but with the intention of getting his anger off of his chest without actually sending it. As soon as the E. Mail is completed he presses the send button and the E. Mail is on the way. Needless to say, the manager fires him as a client. He beats and chastises himself but cannot undo the mistake he made. The problem is that this "mistake" represents a type of behavior that he has repeated in many different ways and in different scenarios all through his life.

2. A woman was so proud that her abusive and alcoholic husband had stopped drinking as a result of their psychotherapy that she gave him a can of cold beer. Needless to say, he was unable to refuse and the entire pattern of alcoholism and abuse happened again. This ended her third divorce to men with the same abuse and drug addiction problem.

In typical fashion, personality disorders are such that people are unaware of their behaviors. As a result, they tend to blame others when things do not work out. However, part of difficulty of working with people with this "self defeating personality" is that, when their patterns are pointed out they feel criticized and blamed. 

It should go without saying that none of us can change the things we do not know about. If they do not want to know about it how can they want to change. After all, nothing is wrong in the mind of this type of individual. How can that be? How do the explain all the bad things that happen to them? The answers to these questions is that they engage in a variety of rationalizations: 1. They blame others, 2. They blame their fate or karma, 3. They blame racism, 4. Religious prejudice, 5. Sexual orientation, 6. Age, 7. Married or non married status, 8. The economy, 9. The President. 10. The weather and so it goes on and on.

There is no single reason for an individual building failure into their lives. Here are some possible explanations:

1. We know that people fear change, even when it is to their benefit to change. Remember, change is unknown while the familiar is comfortable.

2. A sense of guilt or of not deserving success stops many people. Million dollar lottery winners do not have a good record after collecting their new found wealth.

3. Self hatred and wishing punishment for some unknown sin can lead to self defeat.

4. Failure can represent success if the aim of the failure is to cause loved ones to suffer.

5. Masochism or the wish to suffer.

There is no medication for self defeat or masochism. However, therapy helps. Psychotherapy is helpful whether its the cognitive behavioral or psychodynamic type. Regardless of the type of therapy, the client will bring to the therapist the strategy of constructing one more defeat. This is where the skill of the therapist comes in helping the client to change but in ways that are non-confrontational and non-judgmental. Regardless of the type of psychotherapy used, it requires long term treatment because the client remains blindly invested in defeat.

Following is a list of the criteria for self defeating personality disorder that was excluded from the DSM IV. Please note that a person need not be feeling depressed, experiencing abuse or undergoing a crisis. This repetitive behavior happens on its own.

Potential Diagnostic Category for Self Defeating Personality:

A)Pervasive pattern of self-defeating behavior, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. The person may often avoid or undermine pleasurable experiences, be drawn to situations or relationships in which he or she will suffer, and prevent others from helping him, as indicated by at least five of the following:
chooses people and situations that lead to disappointment, failure, or mistreatment even when better options are clearly available
rejects or renders ineffective the attempts of others to help him or her
following positive personal events (e.g., new achievement), responds with depression, guilt, or a behavior that produces pain ( e.g., an accident)
incites angry or rejecting responses from others and then feels hurt, defeated, or humiliated (e.g., makes fun of spouse in public, provoking an angry retort, then feels devastated)
rejects opportunities for pleasure, or is reluctant to acknowledge enjoying himself or herself (despite having adequate social skills and the capacity for pleasure)
fails to accomplish tasks crucial to his or her personal objectives despite demonstrated ability to do so, e.g., helps fellow students write papers, but is unable to write his or her own
is uninterested in or rejects people who consistently treat him well, e.g., is unattracted to caring sexual partners
engages in excessive self-sacrifice that is unsolicited by the intended recipients of the sacrifice

B) The behaviors in A do not occur exclusively in response to, or in anticipation of, being physically, sexually, or psychologically abused.

C) The behaviors in A do not occur only when the person is depressed.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Hmmm. - - Nov 19th 2014

I do all of these things. In some way or another (aexcept physically self-harming) I do every, single one of them. I am not the victim of abuse, I don't suffer from depression. 

I choose friends I know to be unstable/needy/suffering serious mental issues. I take on their issues, even willingly acknowledge their lack of regard. I reject multiple opportunities to distance myself from them.

I procrastinate in every aspect of my life. Liesure, work, money, shopping.. you name it. Used to put this down to my own laziness, but the consequences are invariably detrimental to me and everytime I am devastated by the result of my behaviour. But I repeat the same patterns again and again.

On many occasions I have helped others with their assignments, even practically completing these tasks for them - rather than do my own.

When interest is shown in me, I respond with scorn, sarcasm or disbelief. Even though in hindsight I can see my behaviour was ridiculous.

Have no idea why I do these things, but very interesting none the less.

self defeat personality disorder - Amrit - Dec 15th 2012

I have this disorder.. please tellme the treatment of this disorder.....i can i get rid of it?


Please reply to my post because i really need to end my repititive failure pattern....

Is there ANY research or understanding on this topic?! - - May 26th 2010

I am someone who has begun to try to understand some illogical aspects of my behaviour that best seem to fit the description of a person with self-defeating personality disorder.

I don't fit fully with the description but I would certainly say that I gain more relief from hardship, than from the idea of imposing even the smallest amount of hardship on others. I find it impossible to ever have time off sick, if someone gives me something, I have to give back double, i cannot EVER take up help from anyone unless it appears to be mutually beneficial, and is not percieved by the giver as a favour.

These feelings can be so extreme that I often act in a way that I KNOW is illogical in order to relieve myself of the overwhelming stress that I feel from the perception of giving 'burden' to someone. I am far happier spending hours completing something for someone else, than completing the same task for myself, even if they don't really have a great need for that thing.

I cannot understand why there is little in the way of discussion on this topic, as from my perspective, it is something that is HUGELY affecting my quality of life, and yet there are no discussion or message boards that I can find, no counselling recommendations, or even simple advice on the topic? It is sad that I find some people negating the possibility of the disorder on the basis that 'no one wants to suffer', for indeed, I feel certainly from my perspective, that I do not want to suffer either, but that I feel I must endure the alternative to burdening others, which is often sufferance, which I find much easier to endure than the psychological stress of feeling that I have caused someone else discomfort (even if it is only a percieved one), which I then consequently assume would lead them to some sort of resentment towards me.

And i can accept that too - William H Bishop, MA - Mar 30th 2010

Wow this post really stired up some emotions (there is some amusing irony...)

I am a psychotherapist and I kind of agree with you (the author of the blog) to be honest I feel that many people in our field carry symtoms similar to what you describe... helping at the expense of themselves (60+ case loads without the income to pay off their school loans needed to get into the field and piles of mostly useless paperwork that serves the purpose of disuading caregivers from trying to collect fom managed care)

In responce to some of the comments - I do not totally disagree... and where is the emotion coming from? I am thankful that every therapist is not like me... so do your own unique thing, be helpful, and let me suggest as a profesor once said "theories are for the client and not for the therapist"... by this ration having multiple options available is most helpful to a diverse client popultion = the world and its' many personalities

Freud Already Said That - Allan N. Schwartz, PhD - Mar 24th 2010

Hi Pinksunglasses,

Of course Freud already said that. He said most things that psychology and psychiatry subscribe to today. In fact, he said that medicines would reduce mental health symptoms. He was a physician, a neurologist, actually.

As for the cases, names, genders, situations, time, location, etc. were all changed to hide any identities. However, in essence, these things did happen. Someone alcoholic was handed a can of beer by their spouse.

Of course, I most definitely disagree with your comment that people do not want to suffer. In reality, masochism is a real problem. People cut themselves, burn their skin, and perpetrate other painful horrors on themselves because they choose to suffer. These are people who are not psychotic at all.

While I am happy to hear your opinions, I must most strenuously disagree.

Dr. Schwartz

Comfort in the familiar - Beth - Mar 24th 2010

I can relate to this on some level. I have been known to self-destruct at times. Sometimes one finds comfort in what is familiar rather than in what is healthy. Changing can be a huge challenge. Also, I think I would be making an effort to "preempt eventual disaster" in trying to lessen the severity of the fall by doing it myself. So it is still a struggle sometimes to believe in the true goodness and intelligence of myself. This is a battle to which I am still fighting and so far have been succeeding.

Freud already said that... - PinkSunglasses - Mar 24th 2010

The idea of patterns that are repeated over and over, can already be found in Freud's writings. Since then a lot of things happened and psychotherapy and psychology gained a much wider understanding.

The repetition of patterns that are destructive or self defiant, occurs in many personality and other disorders. Just think of OCD!

The hypothetical case study with the woman handing her sober husband a can of beer is not very good. It is more a type of sensational example used sometimes by very opionated speakers. Quite unrealistic, I would presume.

I think through decades it was common understanding until now still that nobody wants to suffer and that there is no masochistic personality disorder. All disorders make people feel bad except for psychopaths and narcissists. Maybe I forgot some others, sorry. It never means that they WANT to feel bad. But assuming they do, assuming there is a masochistic personality disorder, leads quickly to the opinion that they are to blame which, as a judgment, has no  place in psychotherapy at least. It is not going to help the client to tell them that, that is why.


I can very well imagine a person who thinks this up, who wants to revive the masochistic personality to be able to label an accident prone person that he finds so hard to watch or witness. Unless it is really funny. Which leads us to the question: What in himself (Dr Friedman?) gets mirrored and is something he does not want to look at?

Compassion is the most important factor in psychotherapy, in successful therapy. It does not really show in this article. Understanding, well meaning... the works.

Also, I would think even as a layperson that once something is off the DSM, there has to be a very good reason to get it back in, and chances must probably be extremely low. It would mean that hundreds of psychiatrists and psychologists were wrong, and even if this were so, it would be hard to get them to acknowledge that and have an old DSM number revived.

Let's bury the old ideas and look for new ones! Karma, being used to accidents because they happened to a family member, belief systems, physical weakness, insecurity, a lack of self esteem..... and many more.

Conclusio: They don't want to suffer. We don't want to suffer. DIdn't they use it is a man's group. Yes, that was the saying: You aren't Jesus, so get off the cross.

interesting - - Mar 24th 2010

M this was interesting. I wish I understood more. A very illusive behavior that I am sure I have enganged in more then once to be sure. 

Also, I often read the blogs and the comments that go along with them. I wish the blogger would respond to the comments too sometimes... as it would be a nice follow up.

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